Public Enemy’s Chuck D has the season’s most novel marketing motto — Don’t Buy My New CD. “I can no longer ask somebody in the marketplace to go out and buy my record,” says hip-hop’s 46-year-old oracle, born Carlton Ridenhour. “There’s plenty of other ways to satisfy our revenue streams than trying to ask and beg the public to support the record process.”
Notches on a polycarbonate disc are sooooo 1982. Wednesday, December 13 at Mezzanine, Public Enemy and Chuck D embodied the Download Generation’s theory that selling records ain’t gonna cut it. You gotta press the flesh. And Chuck pressed it with a raucous, two-and-a-half-hour best-of set supported by expert mercenaries on guitar, bass, and drums, plus DJ Lord, two camouflaged bodyguards, Professor Griff, and international celebreality star Mr. Flavor Flav.
Chuck says the three-week tour that stopped in SF happens every four years and is but a component of his multiple revenue streams. He monitors them all from a new Mac laptop that he uses to produce his fourth DVD; provide constant media access; administer his music label, SLAMjamz; deal with his huge PE merchandising line; add content to his Web site, PublicEnemy.com; keep tabs on his radio show, On the Real, and his TV show, Chuck D Musician’s Studio; and complete his 2007 Public Enemy comic book and second book, Lyrics of a Rap Revolutionary.
Jay-Z and Pharrell’s HP laptop commercials can eat it. “I think I use the laptop a billion times more than Jay-Z,” says Chuck, who isn’t opposed to doing an Apple commercial someday. “I’m the biggest supporter of Mac since the ’90s. Steve Jobs needs to know that. … I foresaw a day when there would be a billion artists and a million labels across the musical terrain; a million delivery services. The record companies are very angry they can’t sign everybody.”
As he told the packed audience of a thousand at Mezzanine, “The record business is in big trouble. Make sure your favorite group or artist is an incredible act.” Then he proceeded to back up his big words.
A Public Enemy set deliberately menaces audiences. Up front, a huge-forearmed black man wearing a black shirt yells orders at you. Two burly bodyguards mad-dog the crowd and march around behind him. In another life, Chuck D could be a cop or a Marine sergeant, yelling “Freeze, mothafucka!” just as easily as he yells “Fight the power.” And you’d do it. When he orders you to put your fist in the air and keep it there, you listen. Chuck and his retinue could beat your ass, which is where Flavor Flav comes clowning in, holding his clock necklace with one hand and yelling “Yeah, boyee!” into the mic with the other. Flav stage-dived, crowd-surfed, and “Yeah, boyee!”-d his way back into the hearts of everyone who hated his top-rated VH1 show Flavor of Love 2 (with 7.5 million viewers). Halfway through the set, the goofball even managed to strand himself on a ten-foot-high shelf overlooking the crowd. The song ends and he just apologizes. “I’m sorry, man, but I think I’m stuck up here.”
“May I introduce you to the world’s oldest living teenager?” Ridenhour says.
Part of Chuck’s new charm is how available he is these days. On his Web site, he rants just like normal bloggers, except it’s Chuck D sounding like hip-hop’s Bill Cosby. In a 2,000-word, November 30 post titled “The ‘I’ vs. the ‘We,'” he attacks bling culture, blood diamonds, superficial celebrity, the Michael Richards N-word debacle, the Donald Rumsfeld lecture tour, technological toys that “satisfy us to silence,” and artists who side with the labels against MySpace.
During one of dozens of phone interviews, Chuck deftly justified ranting about superficiality and war gems while working with the blingarrific Flavor Flav. “Man, Flavor ain’t got no real diamonds,” he says. “That’s Cubic Flavonia. He’s got no bling. I mean, the guy wears a clock around his neck.”
Touché. Flavor may not be a role model, but he makes for great entertainment, which gets back to Public Enemy embodying the Music Business 2.0. The band’s continued success after twenty years lends credence to the argument that the Internet music revolution is taking musicians back to an earlier era — the days of traveling troubadours who made their living moving from town to town, as opposed to counting royalties.
“We’ve always had that jazz mentality of traveling the world,” Chuck says. “In the ’40s or ’50s with the Louis Armstrongs and the Quincy Joneses, the strongest survived. We’ve been able to see the world — 45 different countries in 56 tours. The more I talk to cats like Quincy Jones and he tells me about jamming in the past, the 37-hour flights to Oslo from New York — back in the ’50s, on propeller planes with two fuel stops, going to different parts of the country and not being able to go into restaurants ’cause you were black — you mean to tell me that I can’t play today in a sixteen-day stretch and pay homage to those guys? They sacrificed so we can have the time on the road. They gave their heart. Some gave their life.”
Like the old troubadours, Chuck isn’t saying “Buy my CD.” All he asks for is a donation, if you feel like it. “When a person goes to the rack, they’re already looking at twelve of your albums,” he says. “You’re kind of competing against yourself. It’s kind of ridiculous for them to go and support you again. If they go back and buy Yo! Bum Rush the Show, how can I be mad?”
Chuck D isn’t getting mad anymore. He’s getting even.